It is advertising that gives the commercial media their characteristic look and sound, and directs their content towards the audiences advertisers want to reach. The revenue from advertising provides the major source of income for media companies, whether large or small, and motivates their business strategies. They stand or fall on their capacity to provide the right kind of content to attract a certain kind of audience, for whose attention advertisers will pay. Thus it is advertisers that ultimately determine the direction and character of media development. Between the media and the advertisers lies an intermediary role for advertising agencies, which are dealers in media time and space, as well as the creators of advertising campaigns. What is referred to in everyday language as ‘advertising’ is usually this assemblage of media, advertisers and agencies that form the institutional foundation of commercial culture.
In an age in which our cultural environment is energised by images of all kinds—especially those of advertising, carried by both ‘old’ media such as television, and ‘new’ media such as social networks—it may be hard to imagine that media advertising began with text only. In Australia, the first advertising medium was the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, which carried advertising on its front page from its first issue in 1803. The technology of letterpress printing limited advertising to text, and the advertisements themselves appeared in columns, like the classified advertising so dominant before the internet. Nevertheless, even though they had the character of public announcements (the original meaning of the word, ‘advertising’), they could still exhibit the colourful and persuasive language associated with advertising today.
By the second half of the 19th century, newspaper technology had advanced to allow for display advertising, incorporating graphics and eventually photographs, which facilitated the expansion of newspaper readership and the commercialisation of the medium. Meanwhile, lithograph-printing technology favoured the development of the poster. In an age in which there were no private cars, and people travelled by train, advertising hoardings that lined railway station platforms were an important medium. Today, outdoor or ‘out-of-home’ is a still prevalent but minor form of advertising, relative to expenditure on communication media, but before radio and even the spread of the popular press, the poster was a major part of the urban landscape.
The faded remnants of large mural advertisements painted directly on the walls of Victorian buildings can still be seen in the inner suburbs of Australia’s older cities. Early photographs of urban streetscapes tell us that commercial signage was an established feature of 19th-century towns and cities. While we may consider our contemporary media environment as saturated with advertising, it is easy to underestimate the very many forms, and the creative variety, that advertising assumed in previous centuries.
The poster was of particular significance in the history of advertising development because it lent itself to more elaborate, varied and aesthetic forms of presentation than graphics in newspapers—not least through the use of colour. This gave rise to the concept of ‘commercial art’, and enhanced the role of the graphic artist as a complement to the copywriter. Artistic creativity was manifested not just in more obvious cultural forms like theatre posters, but applied to the advertising of products and services, laying the basis for what today we would recognise as branding. This was the era in which formerly generic products like tea or soap were being transformed into brands like Bushells or Sunlight. The availability of creativity for commercial purposes helped to show both manufacturers and retailers the usefulness of advertising.
The period from Federation to World War I saw the beginnings of an advertising industry. This was when the first advertising agencies were set up, trade journals appeared and industry associations were formed, as imperial and other international clients such as British American Tobacco arrived to join Australian advertisers like MacRobertson’s Steam Confectionery Works to take advantage of urbanisation and the spread of the popular press in Australia. However, the incipient industry was dogged by the fact that so many other clients were purveyors of patent medicines. World War I was a blessing for the advertising industry, in the sense that it provided an opportunity to demonstrate the social benefits of advertising. These came in the form of military recruitment advertisements, and also in assuming a propaganda role—or ‘commercial patriotism’. A memorable example is the well-known poster series by Norman Lindsay in which the Germans are portrayed as bloodstained barbarians. The obvious emotional appeals made by this advertising have led several observers to argue that it represented a basic transition in the history of advertising, from information to persuasion.
The era after World War I saw the advertising industry take an interest in psychology. In Australia, this was associated with George Elton Mayo, who went on to do most of his life’s work in the United States, symptomatic of the international character and breadth of a movement in which commerce sought to exploit the insights and methods of the social sciences. Post-war expansion of manufacturing and retailing, the intensive commercialisation of the press and the advent of radio all laid out the ground for the nascent consumer society, and provided fertile ground in which the innovations of media and market research could flourish. The offer of such apparently scientific services helped to associate advertising with contemporary values of professionalism and faith in modernity. The Great Depression meant that the 1930s was a decade of contraction and thrift rather than burgeoning consumption, but it nevertheless saw commercial radio come into its own as an advertising medium, with advertisers—through their agencies—providing programs that were quickly absorbed into popular culture. In the urban environment, this was the era of distinctive, hand-painted pub mirrors, and halcyon days for cinema, railway and travel posters.
Australia’s involvement in World War II saw the advertising industry once more pressed into the service of the nation, formally integrated with the government’s war effort. In the decade following the end of the war, with war bonds campaign signs still on lamp-posts throughout the expanding suburbs, advertising revelled in newfound consumer prosperity, and commercial radio enjoyed its golden age. However, the advent of television in 1956 tended to favour larger advertisers and agencies, and this in turn attracted foreign companies—especially from the United States—thus marking the beginning of the thoroughgoing internationalisation of the industry. Ongoing social critique of advertising also stems from this era. Organised consumer demands for regulation to curb advertising’s perceived power to manipulate the masses became fused in public debate with a wider unease about ‘Americanisation’.
By the 1970s, actual advertising campaigns had assumed a vigorously Australian character, belatedly undergoing the ‘creative revolution’ experienced in the United States and Britain during the previous decade. Some of the most notable examples came in the form of political advertising, as in the case of the ‘It’s Time’ campaign, credited with having a major impact on the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972; or of ‘social marketing’—that is, government-sponsored public service advertising, such as the ‘Life. Be in it’ public health campaign launched in 1975. Other memorable campaigns from this era drew upon the everyday vernacular of Australians to coin slogans or jingles, which then were absorbed back into it, such as ‘C’mon Aussie C’mon’ to promote World Series Cricket for the Nine Network.
However, another catchphrase of the era, ‘Anyhow, have a Winfield’, popularised by comedian Paul Hogan, was destined to disappear from television. Winfield was a cigarette brand, and the banning of tobacco advertising from television was successfully pursued by both the Whitlam and Fraser governments despite organised protests from not only the tobacco lobby, but the advertising industry. Another celebrated regulatory cause of the era was ‘sexism’ in advertising, in which the legacy of ‘permissiveness’ from the 1960s collided with the feminist movement of the 1970s. As advertisements became bolder in their use of women’s bodies, women’s organisations became more sharply critical. Despite self-regulatory responses from the industry, most formal complaints about advertising continue to focus on representations of gender and sexuality today.
In the 1980s, objections to both tobacco advertising and sexism took on an activist edge. In particular, anonymous members of BUGA-UP (Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions) literally took aim at outdoor advertising billboards across the nation with paint bombs and ‘creative defacement’. Media attention to this helped strengthen the arm of state governments to implement bans on all forms of tobacco advertising by the end of the decade. Once again, similar ‘culture jamming’ by women activists has taken place without much result. The representation of homosexuality in advertising became another issue of the 1980s, in this case prompted by a television commercial, ‘The Grim Reaper’, part of a public health advertising campaign to raise awareness about HIV-AIDS. The gay community was concerned that the dramatic ad gave the impression that it was gays who were a health threat to society. Less socially sensitive—but still controversial—public service advertising dating from the same era showed graphic traffic accident and hospital scenes in the interests of improving road safety.
The advertising industry became more globalised during the 1980s, and by the end of the decade attention turned to the regulation of Australian content in television commercials. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal had maintained a rule going back to television’s early days that at least 80 per cent of every television commercial shown had to be Australian made. This was challenged by global advertisers and agencies, and in the more deregulatory climate of the 1990s the regulation was relaxed to allow television channels to show up to 20 per cent of imported commercials. This did not result in the devastation the local production industry had feared, but it did mean that Australians would hear American accents in the commercial breaks as well as in the programs. In the advertising industry, the effects of globalisation, deregulation and the economic downturn at the beginning of the decade all combined to make the industry more competitive, which in practice meant greater concentration and corporatisation.
The beginning of the end of the dominance of television and the press as the preferred media of advertisers was already apparent before the end of the 1990s, but has since become a major challenge, both for those media and the advertising industry. With the advent of pay television, and especially the mass adoption of the internet, the new century has seen not ‘the end of mass media’, as some prophets would have it, but rather a desperate casting about for new business models by means of which the traditional media can achieve a transition to the online world. The advertising industry is necessarily caught up in this same process, seeking ways to connect to the ever more fragmented audience that once, almost as a nation, assembled before the television set. Free-to-air television continues to attract those advertisers who want access to large, undifferentiated audiences, but newspapers have lost their once-lucrative classified advertising to the internet, and are looking to facilitate online, paid delivery of their news and information content.
The extraordinary rise of ‘search’ advertising on the internet, and its domination by Google, has posed a particular challenge for the advertising industry. Although they still can provide clients with specialised services for digital media, advertising agencies are in fear of being ‘disintermediated’—that is, advertisers can now place their ads directly with Google. The phenomenal growth of social media such as Facebook and Twitter is part of the problem, as the big-spending brands have been slow to embrace social networking. Although there have been some successful viral campaigns on the scale of Carlton & United’s ‘Big Ad’ in 2005, and the 2012 ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ campaign for Melbourne Metro Trains, advertisers are nervous about the damage that can be done to their brands by the same interactive process on media over which they have no control.
In these circumstances, there has been something of a drift to ‘below the line’ marketing— that is, non-media forms of promotion—and to the commercial exploitation of traditional media in new ways, as with public relations, thus blurring the line between media content and the advertising it carries. In particular, sponsorship and product placement have been assuming ever more subtle forms, though the latter is clearly seen in reality television programs like Big Brother and any number of home renovation and cooking shows. Meanwhile, on the internet, traditional advertising has been adapted in the form of display ads and online video. Beyond the internet, outdoor advertising now extends to the use of huge video screens in downtown areas. Traces of the poster as a cultural form can be found in such advertising, and posters themselves have survived—such as those seen on inner-city walls for clubs, concerts and other events. Also on the street, high rates of mobile phone penetration with the latest generation of smartphones, and the access they give to entertainment and news content, have made mobile advertising the current frontier, particularly for ‘location-based’ targeting.
The advent of internet advertising has given rise to new regulatory issues, notably that of ‘behavioural targeting’—that is, how advertisers might use the information users surrender about themselves, knowingly or not, in the course of their online interaction. Other contemporary issues of public concern to consumers include the role attributed to television advertising of unhealthy food and drink as a cause in the growth of obesity, especially in children, and more generally, advertising’s implication in the encouragement of over-consumption and the consequent degradation of the environment. These are issues that put the advertising industry on the defensive, not only against government, but also against the community, advocacy and professional groups that have mobilised, along with consumer activists and critics of commercialised culture in general.
REFs: R. Crawford, But Wait, There’s More ... (2008); J. Sinclair, Advertising, the Media and Globalisation (2012) and Images Incorporated (1987).